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Keith Narey

Room at the Bottom

(October 1979)

From Militant, No. 474, 12 October 1979, p. 5.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Review by Keith Narey (Chairman, Manningham Labour Party) of Room at the Bottom by Harry Goldthorpe [published by Square One pamphlets, price 20p]

When John Braine was the Secretary of Keighley Communist Party, he published his famous novel, Room At the Top, in which he showed how an ambitious young man could escape from the working class by marrying the boss’s daughter.

Following the book’s success Braine escaped to Dorking and recently spoke on Tory platforms during the general election campaign.

However, a more unsung local hero published his own answer to Braine in 1959 entitled Room at the Bottom. His name was Harry Goldthorpe and he was the first secretary and founder of the Bradford Unemployed Association in the 1920s.

Harry maintained that the Joe Lampton’s of this world were one in a hundred thousand and that the great majority of the working classes are doomed by the system under which they live ‘to stay down at this level on which they were born.’

He makes the point that for those who prefer to speak the truth about the system, rather than cheat and lie, there is no ‘room at the top’ but plenty of room at the bottom.

Lifetime of rebellion

He describes his early youth in Manningham in Bradford, then tells of his first encounter with the dole queue in 1926.

Whilst grumbling about the lack of breakfast in the queue, he was told by the clerk to shut up or he’d punch his nose!

When they picked the clerk up off the floor Goldthorpe was escorted off the premises by the two policemen.

Thus began a life-time of rebellion against authority, and subsequent persecution by the authorities. The first step was to organise a club for the unemployed in Quebec Street. Open air meetings were held to explain the plight of the unemployed and demand maintenance or work.

Goldthorpe was sent on ‘test work’ where four men took turns to sit on and chop firewood. As he says “all that was done in a week by this idiotic method could have been done in one day by one man using a power saw!”

After almost burning the depot down, he was ejected again and this time was sent to an institution for mental defectives, to help feed chickens, which were ‘dispatched to certain prominent gentlemen in the city whose right to have them I very much doubt.’

Goldthorpe decided to re-route some of these to the unemployed club where they would do more good.

After four months he was summoned to the office and given a cup of tea. The officer then asked him ‘Do you tell lies, Goldthorpe?’ ‘Not where the truth will fit. Why?’ answered Harry. ‘How many chickens have you stolen from this establishment?’

‘As near as I have counted 965’ answered Harry.

After a ‘vivid’ silence the officer asked ‘What else have you had from here?’, ‘About three tons of meal and thousands of eggs’

‘What have you done with all this stuff?’

‘I gave it to where it would do most good – the unemployed’ answered Harry.

On being told that he would hear more of this Harry laughed, and invited the officer to come down to the unemployed club, bringing the police with him, to watch the hens laying eggs for the unemployed.

That night the officer turned up and when he saw the hens was speechless. The local papers, the Telegraph and Argus, were given the story but refused to publish, and nothing more was heard of the chickens.

Goldthorpe’s refusal to accept the system led him to the workhouse where he developed a healthy contempt for patronising ‘social workers’ from the middle classes who had no experience of poverty and whose only solution consisted of sending able bodied men to the workhouse.

He was refused dole and jailed for six weeks for being unable to pay his rates! Instead of breaking his spirit this only confirmed his suspicions of the rottenness of the system and determined him to fight its injustice harder than before.

The unemployed club produced its own newspaper to circulate its ideas, and also employed men who had run out of benefit, stamping their cards though unable to pay wages, but thus enabling the men to qualify for benefit again.

One member who informed on this activity was tarred and feathered, leading to an outcry in the press.

But as Goldthorpe says in defence of the unemployed:

“‘Informing’ was the sort of thing that struck at the very roots of our attempts to organise ourselves against those who inflicted poverty on us. Our handicaps were big enough without the burden of rats in our midst.

“If we sinned against society, the pillars of society were ready enough to make examples of us: our might have been a rough sort of justice, but we were equally entitled to make examples of our sinners.”

Refusing to silently starve

Amongst the activities of the club were the provision of free meals and children’s outings to the seaside, but as Goldthorpe says they refused to do other workers out of jobs by working at low rates and ‘their greatest crime’ was refusing to starve silently and respectably but instead making everyone aware that they were starving.

It was very interesting to note at this time that the Communist Party published a letter in the Telegraph & Argus disassociating themselves from Goldthorpe and his comrades.

The tragedy of the activities of the unemployed is that they were not reflected in political activity inside the mass organisations.

Coming after the betrayal of the General Strike of 1926, and the sell out of the national government of 1931 many workers were left demoralised and disillusioned, a prey to cynicism or worse, Fascism.

The courageous struggles of people like Goldthorpe and his comrades deserved far better leaders than those who then masqueraded as the leaders of the labour and trade union movement.

The lessons of this isolation and weakness must be learned by today’s generation. With the threat of a return to mass unemployment it is essential that the fight is not left to ‘gut’ socialists and individuals no matter how sincere and brave.

Link unemployed to trade unions

The rank-and-file of the labour movement, especially the youth, must campaign to recruit all the unemployed into the trade unions at a nominal subscription of a couple of pence a week; into the Labour Party for a minimum donation of say 15p, as for pensioners.

In this way the struggles of the unemployed can be linked to the struggles of workers to transform society along socialist lines – the army of the unemployed could become an army of the unemployed could become an army working for socialism – to develop a society where the persecution of people like Goldthorpe, the indignities of the dole queue, the desperation of a future without work for school leavers, will be impossible.

The wealth exists to provide such a society, and the development of computer technology offers its rapid spread throughout the world, so that workers everywhere can share that ‘room at the top’, and ensure that the struggles of individuals like Harry Goldthorpe were not in vain.

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Last updated: 24 September 2016